The Power of Storytelling and Forest Service Culture

The Power of Storytelling and Forest Service Culture

Rangers take a mid-day lunch break on the Pike National Forest in 1913,

Long before “organizational culture” was trendy, I was interested in Forest Service organizational culture and the role of stories. We were hiring lots of people (in the mid 90’s) and I wanted to give them some of the same (good) experiences that I had had. My first years in the Forest Service (in the late 70’s and early 80′) involved many hours of driving time and lunch time in the field, with the elders sharing stories of the organization. It was fun because, after all, they were stories. At the time, there were few women professionals, and many men did not reach out to help us. At least in part this was for fear that we or others would mistake their intentions. I have to give a special shout out here to John Nesbitt who was a great mentor (and storyteller).

My dream at the time, (in the mid-90’s) was to collect stories that reflected organizational culture and put them in a book for new employees. I received many stories through the Data General (email for FS folks at the time), and still have many of them. I plan to post them here as time and space allow. If people would like to contribute some now, we can post them here. My idea was that you would tell the story and then reflect on what you think the story tells about the culture.

Recently, I ran across this piece in Forbes:

The eclipse of storytelling in the 20th Century
Anthropologists always knew that storytelling is a universal feature of every country and every culture, even if, for most of the 20th Century, storytelling got very little respect. As so-called scientific approaches to life became dominant, mechanistic, machine-like thinking was everywhere triumphant. Analysis was king. Narrative was seen as either infantile or trivial.

The phenomenon didn’t just affect storytelling. In retrospect, the 20th Century can be seen as a giant experiment by the human race to find out what could be accomplished if organizations treated people as things and communicated to them in abstractions, numbers and analysis, rather than through people-friendly communications such as stories.

Employees became “human resources” to be mined, rather than people to be minded. Customers became “demand”, or “consumers” or “eyeballs”, to be manipulated, rather than living, feeling human beings to be delighted. Storytelling was only one of many elements that suffered “collateral damage.”

The whole experiment can be seen as a success to the extent that the material standard of living of a proportion of the world’s population for a time improved. But the experiment was an abysmal failure in most other respects. It made human beings people miserable. And organizations steadily became less and less productive, as the need for innovation grew.

Regular readers know that stories, personal experiences, photos and scientific studies are all fair game for commenting and discussion on this blog. For new readers, as we discuss topics like sexual harassment or government shutdowns or whatever, let it be known that stories are honored and valued here.


via A New Century of Forest Planning

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